YORK — Following an Aug. 19 public hearing that attracted a large crowd of skeptical to upset patrons, directors of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District will take more time before deciding what to do about a proposed rule update that would place new restrictions and requirements on farmers’ use of nitrogen fertilizer.
Gathered Tuesday evening for a special meeting at the Colis and Dolores Campbell Student Activity Center at York College, UBBNRD directors voted 16-1 to send the proposed rule update back to their water committee for further review.
The decision appeared to sit well with the audience of around 350 patrons who turned out for the meeting.
“I’m glad you’re moving back to the water committee,” said Stan Boehr, a Henderson area farmer. “That’s good news to me.”
Director Larry Moore of Ulysses said the board can take the time necessary to make a good decision about any updates.
“Nothing’s going to happen this fall,” Moore said. “We’ve got time to work on it.”
The proposed update would be to Rule 5 in the district’s groundwater rules and regulations related to groundwater quality. Many communities and rural residents within the large, heavily irrigated NRD face challenges with elevated groundwater nitrate concentrations, which can pose a risk to human health.
The Upper Big Blue district, based in York, encompasses all of York County, almost all of Hamilton County, northeastern Adams County, northern Clay and Fillmore counties, and parts of Saline, Seward, Butler and Polk counties. In all, the district has about 1.23 million certified irrigated acres.
The proposal now before the board would require an approved nitrogen inhibitor to be applied along with any pre-plant anhydrous ammonia injected into farm fields anywhere in the district prior to March 1 each year, and with any other form of nitrogen fertilizer applied anytime prior to planting. (Such nitrogen applications are prohibited prior to March 1.)
A nitrogen inhibitor is a compound used to slow the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrate, which can leach down through the root zone and toward the groundwater table.
In addition, farmers in Level 2 and Level 3 groundwater management zones would be limited to applying no more than 120 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre prior to planting. Additional nitrogen could be applied once the crop was in the ground. In Level 2 zones, water samples from designated monitoring wells register an average nitrate concentration of at least 7 parts per million. Level 3 has an average sample concentration of 10 ppm or more.
Farmers in Level 2 and Level 3 zones would be required to report to the NRD prior to fertilization each spring on how much nitrogen they planned to apply and how that application would measure up against “best management practices.”
The Aug. 19 public hearing attracted a crowd that spilled out of a large ballroom at York’s Holthus Convention Center. Speakers questioned the scientific justification for the proposed new restrictions and requirements and argued that the stiffer regulations would place a heavy and unwarranted financial burden on farmers already struggling to stay in business.
Farmers had an opportunity to speak again on Tuesday. Some reiterated talking points from Aug. 19, but most if not all said they would welcome the NRD taking more time to make sure it gets any rule changes right. Several offered to be part of an ongoing dialogue between farmers and the NRD over common-sense fertilizer regulations.
“If you had a deal where you wanted to do some research, I would sign up my farm today,” said Kendall Siebert, a Henderson area farmer. “It’s as much on us as on you that we don’t have a better relationship.”
At the Aug. 19 hearing, many speakers criticized the NRD for seeming to rush a proposed rule change toward a vote without answering all patrons’ questions about it. Because of the rules governing the public hearing, NRD staff and board members were unable to respond to questions, criticism or other comments that night.
On Tuesday, Roger Houdersheldt of Shelby, the NRD board chairman, complimented those who spoke Aug. 19 for doing their research ahead of time and articulating their concerns effectively.
“It was done very well,” Houdersheldt said. “It wasn’t, “Don’t do this because I don’t want you to.’ It was, “Don’t do this because this is why it won’t work.”
Houdersheldt said he hopes farmers and other district patrons will continue to be part of the discussion as the NRD’s fertilizer regulations continue to be discussed. He admitted the roll-out of the proposed rule update this summer could have been handled differently.
“The cart got ahead of the horse here a little bit,” he said. “We understand that.”
Moore, the board member from Ulysses, made his motion to send the rule proposal back to the water committee at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting. In response,
Director Merlin Volkmer of Shickley moved to table the proposal altogether, and Director Paul Weiss of McCool Junction seconded that motion.
The motion to table failed 15-2, with Volkmer and Weiss voting in favor.
Toward the end of the meeting, Weiss said he regretted the motion to table had been unsuccessful, as he believed it might put the proposed rule change to bed.
“I just want to say I’m sorry the tabling didn’t go through because I thought if we tabled it that would probably put an end to it for quite a while,” Weiss said. “I personally think it ought to be totally scrapped and started over.”
Director Ronda Rich of York said she appreciated all the feedback she had received from constituents regarding the fertilizer proposal, and that it would help the board make a better decision in the end.
“Not everybody’s going to get everything they want,” she said. “That’s the democracy in this.”